Levels of physical activity and inactivity in children and adults in the United States: current evidence and research issues

Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1999 Nov;31(11 Suppl):S526-33. doi: 10.1097/00005768-199911001-00007.


Purpose: The purpose was to describe current levels of physical activity and inactivity among adults and young people in the United States.

Methods: Estimates of participation in regular physical activity were derived from three national surveys for adults (National Health Interview Survey, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System) and from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey for high school students.

Results: Overall, 63.8% of high school students surveyed on the 1997 YRBS reported participating in vigorous physical activity for at least 20 min on 3 or more days per week. Participation in vigorous activity was higher for boys (72.3%) than girls (53.5%), whites (66.8%) compared with blacks (53.9%) and Hispanics (60.4%), and decreased with advancing grade. Among adults, 27.7% meet recommended levels of either moderate or vigorous physical activity, whereas 29.2% report no regular physical activity outside of their work. Gender differences in participation in physical activity are less pronounced than in youth, and age-related patterns were complex. Whites are more active than blacks and Hispanics, and persons with higher family incomes and more education report being more physically active. There have been only minor changes in reported participation in leisure time physical activity over the past 15 yr.

Conclusion: National estimates of physical activity appear to be reliable and valid for adults but may be less so for adolescents and are poor measures for children. Research is needed to determine the role that objective monitoring with accelerometers may play in surveillance. Reliable and valid measures of occupational, household, and transportation-related physical activity and sedentary behaviors are needed to better characterize the range of activity that is associated with health.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Child
  • Health Behavior
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Life Style*
  • Physical Exertion*
  • Physical Fitness
  • Research
  • Sex Factors
  • United States